Everyone needs to access oral health care at some point in their lives, however for one reason or another, many people cannot access traditional dental care when they need it. People living in rural and remote areas are among those who often miss out on essential oral health care. The establishment of the oral health therapist profession (as it is known in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore) or dental therapy (in the UK, the USA, South Africa, and Canada), has precipitated increased access to basic oral health care for people and communities who would otherwise miss out.
What does an oral health therapist do?
Oral health therapists are part of the group of professions that strive to optimise individual and population-level oral health.
They perform a range of routine dental and oral health services including:
- Thorough dental examinations for children and adults
- Diagnosis of tooth decay and gum disease
- Tooth cleaning, scaling, and polishing
- Cavity filling
- Tooth extractions (using local anaesthetic).
Beyond basic dental care, oral therapists can take impressions and x-rays of teeth and jaw, and apply sealants and other therapies to prevent tooth decay and cavities.
Oral health education is yet another part of their role and is part of a strategy to prevent dental disease in children and adults. Oral health therapists not only provide one-to-one education in the clinical setting, but are known to deliver education to primary schools, residential aged care facilities, children’s play groups, and other groups in the community.
Oral health therapists often work as part of a dental team and therefore can promptly refer more complex dental problems to their dentist colleagues and/or other healthcare professionals.
Where do oral health therapists work?
Given the different titles oral health therapists hold and their slight differences in their scopes of practice, it is difficult to quantify all the countries in which they work.
They are certainly well-recognised in Australia, the USA, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa.
They often work in community settings, providing outreach services for schools and rural and remote communities. They can also work as part of a dental health team in private clinical practice.
Advantageous character traits of oral health therapists
These allied health professionals must have excellent hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Because many people are afraid of or anxious about receiving oral health care, they need to be able to establish rapport with their clients, and to help them feel at ease. They must have great communication skills more generally, so that they can work well with child and adult clients.
Oral health therapists must be able to work independently, but also as part of a broader team. Time management skills and a respect for confidentiality are a must. A general interest in health, wellbeing, and preventative care is important too.
Professional education and regulatory frameworks
A three-year bachelor’s degree with integrated clinical practice training appears to the be standard level of education for oral health therapists internationally, and is the case in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Singapore, and the UK.
Australian oral health therapists are regulated nationally with the Dental Board of Australia. Oral health therapists in New Zealand are currently regulated under two separate scopes of practice: dental hygienists and dental therapists, and work is underway to change this so that oral health therapists are regulated nationally by the Dental Council of New Zealand.
In the UK, where they are known as dental therapists, these health professionals are regulated by the General Dental Council (a self-regulated organisation). In the USA, the picture is quite different: each state has quite different requirements and regulations for dental therapists. Canadian dental therapists are self-regulated via the Saskatchewan Dental Therapists Association. Oral health therapists in Singapore are self-regulated via the Singapore Dental Council.
Although there is still some confusion about the role of AHPs in relation to dentists and dental hygienists (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on dental hygienists), they have become increasingly recognised for their pivotal role in making dental care more accessible for disadvantaged and geographically dispersed communities.
The demand for dental care is increasing globally, and while some countries are working to increase access to oral health therapy (e.g., the USA and New Zealand), others (e.g., Canada) appear to be winding back its development as a profession.
Find out more
- National Partnership for Dental Therapy | USA
- Australian Dental and Oral Health Therapists’ Association
- Dental Board of Australia
- The British Association of Dental Therapists
- Association for Oral Health Therapists | Singapore
- Singapore Dental Council
- Saskatchewan Dental Therapists Association
- South African Dental Therapy Association
If you have questions about the oral health therapy profession, or if you wish to share your experiences, please leave a comment below.
If you offer professional development or business support services for oral health therapists or their employers, please list your business on our Service Directory.
AHP Workforce provides allied health workforce planning, strategy and consulting for employers, managers and public sector stakeholders. For allied health workforce solutions, contact us today.